If I hadn't had the address in hand, I might have walked right past the entrance to Cello. The ornate wooden door, carved and studded with iron, is hidden in shadows thrown by a street light next door. But look carefully and you'll notice a little brass plaque about the size of a place mat with the restaurant's name stamped in. With characteristic discretion, there is no uniformed doorman, no street-to-door awning, no menu hanging in a window. Nothing, in fact, to lure you into chef Laurent Tourondel's domain other than a prior knowledge of what you'll find when you get there: one of New York City's most singular culinary experiences.
After cooking in several of France's top gastronomic temples followed by stints in Moscow, Las Vegas, and C.T. in Manhattan's Flatiron district, Laurent Tourondel opened Cello in a century-old, red brick brownstone on a tony, Upper East Side block in 1999. It met with immediate critical and popular acclaim, the culmination of which was a three-star review in the New York Times. But this also meant that procuring a reservation in the 65-seat restaurant became almost impossible, which is why it took me over a year to make it through that massive wooden door.
And it was worth the wait. As the exterior of the restaurant suggests, the pleasures of Cello are subtle yet as palpable as the invisibly attentive staff or the comfortable amount of space that surrounds each table - the kinds of indulgences that you don't miss until you don't have them. Once, while I was waiting momentarily for a table, I overheard a gentleman remark as much to his companion as they put on their coats after dinner.
"This place always reminds me of Europe," he said, "they don't knock you over the head with fancy gimmicks and what have you...They just leave you alone to enjoy your dinner. I like that in a restaurant."
Well put, I thought as I walked down the tiny flight of stone steps and past the minuscule bar to dinner. The dining room has a certain gravitas about it, not in a somber way, but more like the weightiness of a piece of sterling - solid and elegant, old-world, but ever-classic. A neutral palette heightens this impression, though there are touches of whimsy scattered about the celadon and grey interior: the aquamarine mohair pillows that make for soft reclining; the sloping, wave-like line of the velour banquettes; and the flashy brass Arman sculptures of contorted cellos, two small ones in the dining room and one behemoth in the garden.
A sophisticated, mostly Manhattanite cliental, many dressed in suits of grey that match the walls, fits in well with this manner of genteel luxury. Cello has all the requisite details of turn-of-the-century fine dining: the Frette table linens, Bernardaud china, Austrian crystal glasses. While not at all stuffy or too staid, it's the kind of atmosphere that inherently inhibits explosive bursts of laughter or overly animated, water glass-felling gestures. Instead, diners leave that sort of exuberance to Laurent Tourondel's imaginative cuisine, which is, as the chef says, "a personal intreptation of traditional french cuisine...based on seasonal ingredients...simple tastes and classic technique."
Dinner at Cello begins with a narrow tray of amuses bouche, or little mouthfuls, almost canap-like but for their quirkiness and daring. In one, a morsel of soy-marinated eel sits on top of a buttery flat potato round. Smoked haddock brandade, a soft, salty pillow, garnishes grilled country bread in another. And lastly, a clever miniature smoked salmon croque-monsieur dispels any thoughts that this urbane creation was ever anything as simple and rustic as a sandwich. Alongside these delicacies, my mouth is equally amused by a glass of Champagne, the Paul Goerg Blanc de Blancs, a selection made for us by Cello's talented Sommelier, Olivier Zardoni.
In the course of a month, I ate three dinners at Cello, and each time Zardoni was there to lend his oenological expertise, either creatively matching wines by the glass to a tasting menu designed by Tourondel, or helping me and my dinner-mate pick out an appropriate bottle of red wine to accompany our fish-based entrees. And indeed, the Richard Boillot premier cru 1997 Cotes de Beaune was a perfectly delightful partner to the special of nearly red-in-the center arctic char with asparagus and a mushroom jus, and the bacon-wrapped tuna with grilled foie gras and a balsamic vinegar reduction.
Despite its decidedly un-aquatic name, Cello is a seafood restaurant. But rather than keep to simple, mix-and-match preparations and gentle sauces that one associates with most seafood, Tourondel cooks every type of fish as if it were the only one on the menu. He carefully considers each individual taste and texture, then decides what would best enhance it, never shying away from bold seasonings and layered, complex flavors. He instinctively understands that the lean meatiness of tuna can stand up to both the rich, livery taste of foie gras and the salty crunch of the bacon while the balsamic cuts through it all, adding a fruity nuance with just the right jolt of acid. With confidence, he adroitly pairs the earthy, thick flesh of wild striped bass with a bracing pimento piperade, pungent tapenade, and deep-fried slices of Serrano ham as thin and brittle as potato chips. Succulent, saline chunks of red-tinged Maine lobster are both heightened and tamed by a gutsy, buttery emulsion of lime, ginger, and cilantro.
At the same time that Tourondel lets his ebullience reign with full-flavored fish, he also knows when to hold back and let the more temperate species speak for themselves. A sweet, mild carpaccio of pearly dorade needs nothing more than a lively garnish of tiny cubed magenta beets, mache, and a sprinkling of olive oil to bring it to life. The most popular entree on the menu, the Chilean sea bass with acacia honey and parsnip puree, is also an exercise in restraint. The components of the marinade are almost too simple (just soy sauce, grape seed oil, honey, and white wine vinegar) while the presentation is a plain as a piece of white fish perched on a creamy white puree. No ruffle of baby greens or herbs, no dots of sauce, or sprinkles of caviar: nothing to distract from the pure, clean flavors that are deep and haunting as the ocean itself.
There is one meat entree to be found on the menu, and it changes with the seasons. During the New York winter-cold, it was a hardy confit of lamb shanks with preserved lemon and savory, served with creamy flageolet beans. In a restaurant culture where steak is normally the best selling entree on the menu, I expressed my surprise that Tourondel has chosen lamb over beef.
"I always use lamb," he tells me with a sly grin, "for the simple reason that women will definitely go more for lamb than a piece of beef...Since usually the woman in a couple decides where to eat, if you put the lamb on [the menu], she may want to come back."
The chef, small and solid like his restaurant, has deep brown eyes and a quick laugh. His deceptively rosy complexion would lead you to believe he spends an active outdoor life in the country breathing plenty of wholesome fresh air instead of an active, indoor life in the city, where any fresh air he meets occurs on the 15-block walk from his apartment to the restaurant.
But back to the meat. While I can tell you that it smells enticing, is served in its own little cast-iron pot, and that they sell approximately ten a night (out of 120 diners), I can't tell you how it tastes. After three meals at Cello and one long night in the kitchen sampling as many little tidbits as the chef passed my way, I forgot all about trying the lamb. But really, it is besides the point. At Cello, Tourondel's focus is fish and the meat is something he feels obliged to provide.
It's not the sort of obligation he takes lightly - having food on the menu that everyone wants to eat. Although it sounds simple and one would think integral to every restaurant, Tourondel's attitude is actually rare. Unlike many French chefs at three-star restaurants, Tourondel doesn't put his own ego ahead of his customers' enjoyment. His food is not about a grand scheme or an intellectual exercise, but rather, an honest expression of what he loves, and of the foods and ingredient combinations which work for him and his palate. Although he does have his eccentricities (no combining fruit with chocolate, no warm oysters or warm smoked salmon, and no traditionally savory ingredients used in desserts) he also has an intrinsic understanding of the flavors that people crave. Satisfying those cravings in a creative, elegant manner firmly based in classical French technique is his mission at Cello. It's what he knows will fill the dining room, week after week, year after year, despite passing trends and fickle press.
But cultivating a following dedicated enough to make their next dinner reservation while they are waiting for their cars to pick them up from their current one is a challenge for a restaurant as expensive and upscale as Cello.
"I don't want people to think we are too fancy" Tourondel says, "I don't want to hear 'oh wow we had a great experience but you know next time we're going to try somewhere new.' No; I want to hear "wow we had a great experience so we'll come back.'"
To do this, he listens to his customers, and weaves their feedback into his cuisine. And although the presentations are elaborate and the garnishes luxe - caviar and truffles abound, as do fashionable "foams" - the tastes are clean and accessible. It doesn't take to much pondering to understand why he pairs crunchy breaded Ecuadorian shrimp with soft, briny feta cheese and cool cucumbers, or how the earthy intensity of Jerusalem artichoke soup brings out those similar qualities in the sliced black truffles crowning the top. His pastry chef, Jean-Franois Bonnet follows this lead, and it's easy to appreciate the contrast his ethereal lime cream makes against the crisp leaves of pastry in his mille-feuilles, or take childish pleasure in the nearly savory edge of salted peanuts and rice crispies combined with the treacly complexity of bittersweet chocolate disks. His food makes sense, and people respond to that.
There is nothing as telling as watching a chef in action, doing what he or she loves in a restaurant kitchen. Having cooked briefly in a professional kitchen myself, it is a place I feel eminently comfortable in, and eager to learn from. So I was pleased when Tourondel gave his assent to hosting me for one night during service. He dressed me up in one of his starched white jackets and I followed him down the flights of stairs to the space where the meals are cooked.
First I am introduced to the kitchen team, including his two sous chefs, John Randazzo and Matt Evers. I am struck by everyone's youth. Even for a French kitchen, where apprentices begin in their teenage years, the kitchen is seriously young. Tourondel himself is barely 34, his sous chefs 25 and 26, and the oldest person in the kitchen tops out at 38.
"I like to have young energy in the kitchen" Tourondel tells me, "Older cooks don't listen as well...they have their own ideas."
This attitude is understandable, given the chef's precocity. And Tourondel was always precocious, even at the tender age of 13, when he was "fired" from school.
He told me this earlier that day, as we sat in his office conducting a formal interview on the wintry afternoon. From his desk, he fished out a hand written letter to his father from the principal of his school.
"My father sent this to me and I saved it," he explained.
"Monsieur, Madame," he said, reading from the slightly frayed paper, "we are sorry we couldn't reach you by phone. I would like to inform you that I, the Director of the school, give to Laurent a warning for the motive following: Instead of going to his classes at 8 am Laurent went to the bar with two of his friends."
"I was 13 at the time," he told me, "and we were playing pool or whatever, so that's how seriously I took school. I couldn't stand sitting for hours; it bored me."
Of course, rather than thinking his son an under-achieving culinary genius, stifled in a noncreative atmosphere, Tourondel senior rather thought Laurent more of a juvenile delinquent.
"My father gives me three choices," Tourondel related, "are you going to cook, are you going to do the sewing, or type as a secretary? I chose cooking, but only because I didn't have enough school to go to the army."
It wasn't quite that desperate. Tourondel already loved to cook. By the time he was 12, he was preparing most of the family's Sunday meals. At the age of 13, he single-handedly made an impressive Christmas dinner for the family and their friends. The menu included a terrine of vegetables, beef tornadoes with green pepper sauce, and for dessert, an apricot charlotte. "And I made my first terrine of foie gras," he nostalgically enthuses, "it took me two days!"
After cooking school, Tourondel worked in his home town of Montlucon in the center of France, first slinging paella at a local Spanish joint, trying to save up his funds to buy a motorcycle. Eventually, he gave up the motorcycle idea and decided that a better adventure would be to move to London, work in a fancy hotel, and learn English. He spent three years there before returning to France to continue his training in the kitchens of Michelin two- and three- star restaurants including those of the Troigros family, Jacques Maximin, and Joel Robuchon.
Although he trained in many renowned kitchens, he could hardly have found a more pleasant atmosphere than the kitchen he designed at Cello. Despite the tiles and shiny surfaces waiting to bounce and amplify the banging and screaming that usually goes on, it is peaceful and nearly silent. The chefs work swiftly and purposefully, with intense concentration, frying, searing, whisking, drizzling. Plates slide with a rhythmic shuffle but no slam. I asked Amy TK, the only other woman in the room (and the only woman who works in the kitchen at dinner) if it was always this still, or if this was for my benefit.
"It's always like this," she says, "or usually."
Still I feel like I am waiting for the other shoe to drop as I slink back against the giant, floor-standing mixer and try to blend in with the tiles.
It stays pretty much like this the whole night, with about an hour of what might be construed as a "rush." From nine O'clock to ten, the energy level picks up and Tourondel stops feeding me such delicacies as zucchini and carrot wrapped-rouget, and jumps forward in line with his sous chefs, shouting out orders and wiping down plates, spooning celery jus around mackerel tartare for the party in one of the regally appointed private dining rooms upstairs.
The work stations are set up like a horseshoe with all the cooks behind the ring and Tourondel and the sous chefs in the center. That makes it easy for him to jump around and supervise all the stations at once, dipping his spoon into the risotto to check the seasonings, jabbing a finger at a piece of tuna to feel how rare it is, or adjusting the micro-carrot tops that garnish the stone crab appetizer. Nothing escapes his searching eyes. He watches as one of his cooks slides black winter truffles through the slicer, making even rounds to top the black bass.
"Too thick," he says, tightening the edge to produce skinny, delicate slivers. "That's much better."
Over by the saute station, one of the sous chefs, Matt Evers, arranges three Brussels sprout leaves on top of the vegetable medley that makes a bed for the turbot layered with foie gras (which Tourondel calls "surf and turf" as an homage to his Las Vegas days).
Although Tourondel's cooking is exacting, it is never precious, and I am shocked by this seemingly superfluous touch.
"Three Brussels sprout leaves?" I ask incredulously.
Yup, three, Evers responds without irony.
Later that night I mention these three leaves to Tourondel and he laughs, turning a little pink at the tips of his ears.
"I like the shape," he tells me, smiling mischievously, "it makes it fancy, you know what I mean?"
Even though the dish already has turbot, foie gras, rarified Xeres vinegar, fresh seasonal porcini mushrooms, and sage leaf-wrapped foie gras pat, the idea that those three leaves make it "fancy" struck me as absolutely apt for Tourondel. After all, here is a man who does not shirk the details, down to counting out grains of coarse salt to top the crisp potato-crusted halibut.
It is only by wielding this much control that he can make his dishes truly work. One inattentive moment, or on a night when things don't quite click, the combinations can seem too wild and unruly on the plate, as if the ingredients were let out of the kitchen to frolic without the steely-eyed chef around to kick them in line. Of all the meals I enjoyed at Cello this happened only once, with the Brussels sprout leaf-garnished surf and turf. The foie gras between the fillets was overcooked. Instead of dissolving into a velvety sauce and unifying the dish with its rich, meaty essence, it refused to meld; the ingredients remained disparate elements, never coming together into a happy whole.
But then, the next time I ordered it, the foie gras was as soft and melting as a pool of butter on a hot pancake, and the combination was miraculous - just perfect in its mix of audacity, authority, and sheer comforting pleasure.
That's the key to dining at Cello. As a customer in the cushioned dining room, you don't sense the strict rule that goes on in the kitchen down below, the precise touches, the careful planning, the flawless technique, and close monitoring of every single dish. Instead, all you experience are the flavors and the pure, beautiful harmony they produce in combination.
This is what Tourondel strives for on every single one of his 14-hour days. Do not expect this man to ever feel satisfied and rest on his laurels. He will keep cooking and experimenting and improving his food until he reaches his next goal, which is a four-star review in the New York Times. Then, he contemplates writing a cookbook and possibly having his own, small television show, but nothing that would take him away from his restaurant for very long, and only if he can find the time. His priority is cooking, and cooking to perfection.